Chapter 8 - The Formation of the State among Germans

Submitted by libcom on August 5, 2005

ACCORDING to Tacitus, the Germans were a very numerous people. Caesar gives us an approximate idea of the strength of the separate German peoples; he places the number of the Usipetans and the Tencterans who appeared on the left bank of the Rhine at 180,000, women and children included. That is about 100,000 to one people, [1] already considerably more than, for instance, the total number of the Iroquois in their prime, when, no more than 20,000 strong, they were the terror of the whole country from the Great Lakes to the Ohio and the Potomac. On the map, if we try to group the better known peoples settled near the Rhine according to the evidence of the reports, a single people occupies the space of a Prussian government districtthat is, about 10,000 square kilometers or 182 geographical square miles. [About 4,000 square miles -- Ed.] Now, the Germania Magna of the Romans, which reached as far as the Vistula, had an area of 500,000 square kilometers in round figures. Reckoning the average number of each people at 100,000, the total population of Germania Magna would work out at 5,000,000 -- a considerable figure for a barbarian group of peoples, but, compared with our conditions ten persons to the square kilometer, or about 550 to the geographical square mile-extremely low. But that by no means exhausts the number of the Germans then living. We know that all along the Carpathians and down to the south of the Danube there were German peoples descended from Gothic tribes, such as the Bastarnians, Peucinians and others, who were so numerous that Pliny classes them together as the fifth main tribe of the Germans. As early as 180 B.C. they make their appearance as mercenaries in the service of the Macedonian King Perseus, and in the first years of Augustus, still advancing, they almost reached Adrianople. If we estimate these at only 1,000,000, the probable total number of the Germans at the beginning of our era must have been at least 6,000,000.

After permanent settlements had been founded in Germany, the population must have grown with increasing rapidity; the advances in industry we mentioned are in themselves proof of this. The objects found in the Schleswig marshes date from the third century, according to the Roman coins discovered with them. At this time, therefore, there was already a developed metal and textile industry on the Baltic, brisk traffic with the Roman Empire and a certain degree of luxury among the more wealthy -- all signs of denser population. But also at this time begins the general attack by the Germans along the whole line of the Rhine, the Roman wall and the Danube, from the North Sea to the Black Sea-direct proof of the continual growth and outward thrust of the population. For three centuries the fight went on, during which the whole main body of the Gothic peoples (with the exception of the Scandinavian Goths and the Burgundians) thrust south-east, forming the left wing on the long front of attack, while in the center the High Germans (Hermionians) pushed forward down the upper Danube, and on the right wing the Ischocvonians, now called Franks, advanced along the Rhine; the Ingoevonians carried out the conquest of Britain. By the end of the fifth century an exhausted and bleeding Roman Empire lay helpless before the invading Germans.

In earlier chapters we were standing at the cradle of ancient Greek and Roman civilization. Now we stand at its grave. Rome had driven the leveling plane of its world rule over all the countries of the Mediterranean basin, and that for centuries. Except when Greek offered resistance, all natural languages had been forced to yield to a debased Latin; there were no more national differences, no more Gauls, Iberians, Ligurians, Noricans; all had become Romans. Roman administration and Roman law had everywhere broken up the old kinship groups, and with them the last vestige of local and national independence. The half-baked culture of Rome provided no substitute; it expressed no nationality, only the lack of nationality. The elements of new nations were present everywhere; the Latin dialects of the various provinces were becoming increasingly differentiated; the natural boundaries which once had made Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa independent territories, were still there and still made themselves felt. But the strength was not there to fuse these elements into new nations; there was no longer a sign anywhere of capacity for development, or power of resistance, to say nothing of creative energy. The enormous mass of humanity in the whole enormous territory was held together by one bond only: the Roman state; and the Roman state had become in the course of time their worst enemy and oppressor. The provinces had annihilated Rome; Rome itself had become a provincial town like the rest -- privileged, but no longer the ruler, no longer the hub of the world empire, not even the seat of the emperors or sub-emperors, who now lived in Constantinople, Treves, Milan. The Roman state had become a huge, complicated machine, exclusively for bleeding its subjects, Taxes, state imposts and tributes of every kind pressed the mass of the people always deeper into poverty; the pressure was intensified until the exactions of governors, tax-collectors, and armies made it unbearable. That was what the Roman state had achieved with its world rule. It gave as the justification of its existence that it maintained order within the empire and protected it against the barbarians without. But its order was worse than the worst disorder, and the citizens whom it claimed to protect against the barbarians longed for the barbarians to deliver them.

Social conditions were no less desperate. Already in the last years of the republic the policy of Roman rule had been ruthlessly to exploit the provinces; the empire, far from abolishing this exploitation, had organized it. The more the empire declined, the higher rose the taxes and levies, the more shamelessly the officials robbed and extorted. The Romans had always been too occupied in ruling other nations to become proficient in trade and industry; it was only as usurers that they beat all who came before or after. What commerce had already existed and still survived was now ruined by official extortion; it struggled on only in the eastern, Greek part of the empire, which lies outside the present study. General impoverishment; decline of commerce, handicrafts and art; fall in the population; decay of the towns; relapse of agriculture to a lower level-such was the final result of Roman world rule.

Agriculture, always the decisive branch of production throughout the ancient world, was now more so than ever. In Italy, the enormous estates (latifundia) which, since the end of the republic, occupied I35 almost the whole country, had been exploited in two different ways. They had been used either as pastures, the population being displaced by sheep and cattle, which could be tended by a few slaves, or as country estates (villae), where large-scale horticulture was carried on with masses of slaves, partly as a luxury for the owner, partly for sale in the town markets. The great grazing farms had kept going and had probably even extended; the country estates and their gardens had been ruined through the impoverishment of their owners and the decay of the towns. The system of latifundia run by slave labor no longer paid; but at that time no other form of large-scale agriculture was possible. Small production had again become the only profitable form. One country estate after another was cut up into small lots, which were handed over either to tenants, who paid a fixed sum and had hereditary rights, or to _partiarii_, stewards rather than tenants, who received a sixth or even only a ninth of the year's product in return f or their labor. For the most part, however, these small lots of land were given out to colon;, who paid for them a definite yearly amount, were tied to the soil and could be sold together with their lot. True, they were not slaves, but neither were they free; they could not marry free persons, and their marriages with one another were not regarded as full marriages, but, like those of slaves, as mere concubinage (contubernium). They were the forerunners of the medieval serfs.

The slavery of classical times had outlived itself. Whether employed on the land in large-scale agriculture or in manufacture in the towns, it no longer yielded any satisfactory return -- the market for its products was no longer there. But the small-scale agriculture and the small handicraft production to which the enormous production of the empire in its prosperous days was now shrunk had no room for numbers of slaves. Only for the domestic and luxury slaves of the wealthy was there still a place in society. But though it was dying out, slavery was still common enough to make all productive labor appear to be work for slaves, unworthy of free Romans -- and everybody was a free Roman now. Hence, on the one side, increasing manumissions of the superfluous slaves who were now a burden; on the other hand, a growth in some parts in the numbers of the coloni, and in other parts of the declassed freemen (like the "poor whites" in the ex-slave states of America). Christianity is completely innocent of the gradual dying out of ancient slavery; it was itself actively involved in the system for centuries under the Roman Empire, and never interfered later with slave-trading by Christians: not with the Germans in the north, or with the Venetians in the Mediterranean, or with the later trade in Negroes. [2] Slavery no longer paid; it was for that reason it died out. But in dying it left behind its poisoned sting-the stigma attaching to the productive labor of freemen. This was the blind alley from which the Roman world had no way out: slavery was economically impossible, the labor of freemen was morally ostracized. The one could be the basic form of social production no longer; the other, not yet. Nothing could help here except a complete revolution.

Things were no better in the provinces. We have most material about Gaul. Here there was still a free small peasantry in addition to colon;. In order to be secured against oppression by officials, judges, and usurers, these peasants often placed themselves under the protection, the patronage, of a powerful person; and it was not only individuals who did so, but whole communities, so that in the fourth century the emperors frequently prohibited the practice. But what help was this protection to those who sought it? Their patron made it a condition that they should transfer to him the rights of ownership in their pieces of land, in return for which he guaranteed them the use of the land for their lifetime-a trick which the Holy Church took note of and in the ninth and tenth centuries lustily imitated, to the increase of God's glory and its own lands. At this time, it is true, about the year 475, Bishop Salvianus of Marseilles still inveighs indignantly against such theft. He relates that oppression by Roman officials and great landlords had become so heavy that many "Romans" fled into districts already occupied by the barbarians, and that the Roman citizens settled there feared nothing so much as a return to Roman rule. That parents owing to their poverty often sold their children into slavery at this time is proved by a decree prohibiting the practice.

In return for liberating the Romans from their own state, the German barbarians took from them two-thirds of all the land and divided it among themselves. The division was made according to the gentile constitution. The conquerors being relatively few in number, large tracts of land were left undivided, as the property partly of the whole people, partly of the individual tribes and gentes. Within each gens the arable and meadow land was distributed by lot in equal portions among the individual households. We do not know whether reallotments of the land were repeatedly carried out at this time, but in any event they were soon discontinued in the Roman provinces and the individual lots became alienable private property, allodium. Woods and pastures remained undivided for common use; the provisions regulating their common use, and the manner in which the divided land was to be cultivated, were settled in accordance with ancient custom and by the decision of the whole community. The longer the gens remained settled in its village and the more the Germans and the Romans gradually merged, the more the bond of union lost its character of kinship and became territorial. The gens was lost in the mark community, in which, however, traces of its origin in the kinship of its members are often enough still visible. Thus, at least in those countries where the mark community maintained itself-northern France, England, Germany and Scandinavia-the gentile constitution changed imperceptibly into a local constitution and thus became capable of incorporation into the state. But it nevertheless retained that primitive democratic character which distinguishes the whole gentile constitution, and thus even in its later enforced degeneration and up to the most recent times it kept something of the gentile constitution alive, to be a weapon in the hands of the oppressed.

This weakening of the bond of blood in the gens followed from the degeneration of the organs of kinship also in the tribe and in the entire people as a result of their conquests. As we know, rule over subjugated peoples is incompatible with the gentile constitution. Here we can see this on a large scale. The German peoples, now masters of the Roman provinces, had to organize what they had conquered. But they could neither absorb the mass of Romans into the gentile bodies nor govern them through these bodies. At the head of the Roman local governing bodies, many of which continued for the time being to function, had to be placed a substitute for the Roman state, and this substitute could only be another state. The organs of the gentile constitution had to be transformed into state organs, and that very idly, for the situation was urgent. But the immediate representative of the conquering people was their military leader. To secure the conquered territory against attack from within and without, it was necessary to strengthen his power. The moment had come to transform the military leadership into kinship: the transformation was made.

Let us take the country of the Franks. Here the victorious Salian people had come into complete possession, not only of the extensive Roman state domains, but also of the very large tracts of land which had not been distributed among the larger and smaller district and mark communities, in particular all the larger forest areas. On his transformation from a plain military chief into the real sovereign of a country, the first thing which the king of the Franks did was to transform this property of the people into crown lands, to steal it from the people and to give it, outright or in fief, to his retainers. This retinue, which originally consisted of his personal following of warriors and of the other lesser military leaders, was presently increased not only by Romans -- Romanized Gauls, whose education, knowledge of writing, familiarity with the spoken Romance language of the country and the written Latin language, as well as with the country's laws, soon made them indispensable to him, but also by slaves, serfs and freedmen, who composed his court and from whom he chose his favorites. All these received their portions of the people's land, at first generally in the form of gifts, later of benefices, usually conferred, to begin with, for the king's lifetime. Thus, at the expense of the people the foundation of a new nobility was laid.

And that was not all. The wide extent of the kingdom could not be governed with the means provided by the old gentile constitution; the council of chiefs, even if it had not long since become obsolete, would have been unable to meet, and it was soon displaced by the permanent retinue of the king; the old assembly of the people continued to exist in name, but it also increasingly became a mere assembly of military leaders subordinate to the king, and of the new rising nobility. By the incessant civil wars and wars of conquest (the latter were particularly frequent under Charlemagne), the free land-owning peasants, the mass of the Frankish people, were reduced to the same state of exhaustion and penury as the Roman peasants in the last years of the Republic. Though they had originally constituted the whole army and still remained its backbone after the conquest of France, by the beginning of the ninth century they were so impoverished that hardly one man in five could go to the wars. The army of free peasants raised directly by the king was replaced by an army composed of the serving-men of the new nobles, including bondsmen, descendants of men who in earlier times had known no master save the king and still earlier no master at all, not even a king. The internal wars under Charlemagne's successors, the weakness of the authority of the crown, and the corresponding excesses of the nobles (including the counts instituted by Charlemagne, who were now striving to make their office hereditary), had already brought ruin on the Frankish peasantry, and the ruin was finally completed by the invasions of the Norsemen. Fifty years after the death of Charlemagne, the Empire of the Franks lay as defenseless at the feet of the Norsemen as the Roman Empire, four hundred years earlier, had lain at the feet of the Franks.

Not only was there the same impotence against enemies from without, but there was almost the same social order or rather disorder within. The free Frankish peasants were in a plight similar to their predecessors, the Roman coloni. Plundered, and ruined by wars, they had been forced to put themselves under the protection of the new nobles or of the Church, the crown being too weak to protect them. But they had to pay dearly for it. Like the Gallic peasants earlier, they had to transfer their rights of property in land to their protecting lord and received the land back from him in tenancies of various and changing forms, but always only in return for services and dues. Once in this position of dependence, they gradually lost their personal freedom also; after a few generations most of them were already serfs. How rapid was the disappearance of the free peasantry' is shown by Irminon's records of the monastic possessions of the Abbey of Saint Germain des Pris, at that time near, now in, Paris. On the huge holdings of this Abbey, which were scattered in the surrounding country, there lived in Charlemagne's time 2,788 households, whose members were almost without exception Franks with German names. They included 2,080 coloni, 35 lites [semi-free peasants -- Ed.], 220 slaves, and only eight freehold tenants! The godless practice, as Salvianus had called it, by which the protecting lord had the peasant's land transferred to himself as his own property, and only gave it back to the peasant for use during life, was now commonly employed by the Church against the peasants. The forced services now imposed with increasing frequency had had their prototype as much in the Roman angariae, compulsory labor for the state, as in the services provided by members of the German marks for bridge and road-making and other common purposes. To all appearances, therefore, after four hundred years, the mass of the people were back again where they had started.

But that only proved two things: first, that the social stratification and the distribution of property in the declining Roman Empire completely correspond to the level of agricultural and industrial production at that time, and had therefore been inevitable; secondly, that this level of production had neither risen nor fallen significantly during the following four centuries and had therefore with equal necessity again produced the same distribution of property and the same classes in the population. In the last centuries of the Roman Empire the town had lost its former supremacy over the country, and in the first centuries of German rule it had not regained it. This implies a low level of development both in agriculture and industry. This general situation necessarily produces big ruling landowners and a dependent small peasantry. How impossible it was to graft onto such a society either the Roman system of latifundia worked by slave-labor or the newer large-scale agriculture worked by forced services is proved by Charlemagne's experiments with the famous imperial country estates (villae). These experiments were gigantic in scope, but they left scarcely a trace. They were continued only by the monasteries, and only for them were they fruitful. But the monasteries were abnormal social bodies, founded on celibacy; they could produce exceptional results, but for that very reason necessarily continued to be exceptional themselves.

And yet progress was made during these four hundred years. Though at the end we find almost the same main classes as at the beginning, the human beings who formed these classes were different. Ancient slavery had gone, and so had the pauper freemen who despised work as only fit for slaves. Between the Roman colon-us and the new bondsman had stood the free Frankish peasant. The "useless memories and aimless strife" of decadent Roman culture were dead and buried. The social classes of the ninth century had been formed, not in the rottenness of a decaying civilization, but in the birth-pangs of a new civilization. Compared with their Roman predecessors, the new breed, whether masters or servants, was a breed of men. The relation of powerful landowners and subject peasants which had meant for the ancient world the final ruin, from which there was no escape, was for them the starting-point of a new development. And, further, however unproductive these four centuries appear, one great product they did leave: the modern nationalities, the new forms and structures through which west European humanity was to make coming history. The Germans had, in fact, given Europe new life, and therefore the break-up of the states in the Germanic period ended, not in subjugation by the Norsemen and Saracens, but in the further development of the system of benefices and protection into feudalism, and in such an enormous increase of the population that scarcely two centuries later the severe blood-letting of the Crusades was borne without injury.

But what was the mysterious magic by which the Germans breathed new life into a dying Europe? Was it some miraculous power innate in the Germanic race, such as our chauvinist historians romance about? Not a bit of it. The Germans, especially at that time, were a highly gifted Aryan tribe, and in the full vigor of development. It was not, however, their specific national qualities which rejuvenated Europe, but simply-their barbarism, their gentile constitution.

Their individual ability and courage, their sense of freedom, their democratic instinct which in everything of public concern felt itself concerned; in a word, all the qualities which had been lost to the Romans and were alone capable of forming new states and making new nationalities grow out of the slime of the Roman world-what else were they than the characteristics of the barbarian of the upper stage, fruits of his gentile constitution?

If they recast the ancient form of monogamy, moderated the supremacy of the man in the family, and gave the woman a higher position than the classical world had ever known, what made them capable of doing so if not their barbarism, their gentile customs, their living heritage from the time of mother-right?

If in at least three of the most important countries, Germany, northern France and England, they carried over into the feudal state a genuine piece of gentile constitution, in the form of mark communities, thus giving the oppressed class, the peasants, even under the harshest medieval serfdom, a local center of solidarity and a means of resistance such as neither the slaves of classical times nor the modern proletariat found ready to their hand -- to what was this due, if not to their barbarism, their purely barbarian method of settlement in kinship groups?

Lastly: they were able to develop and make universal the milder form of servitude they had practiced in their own country, which even in the Roman Empire increasingly displaced slavery; a form of servitude which, as Fourier first stressed, gives to the bondsmen the means of their gradual liberation as a class ("fournit aux cultivateurs des moyens d'affranchissement collectif et Progressif"); a form of servitude which thus stands high above slavery, where the only possibility is the immediate release, without any transitional stage, of individual slaves (abolition of slavery by successful rebellion is unknown to antiquity), whereas the medieval serfs gradually won their liberation as a class. And to what do we owe this if not to their barbarism, thanks to which they had not yet reached the stage of fully developed slavery, neither the labor slavery of the classical world nor the domestic slavery of the Orient?

All the vigorous and creative life which the Germans infused into the Roman world was barbarism. Only barbarians are able to rejuvenate a world in the throes of collapsing civilization. And precisely the highest stage of barbarism, to which and in which the Germans worked their way upwards before the migrations, was the most favorable for this process. That explains everything.


[1] The number assumed here is confirmed by a statement of Diodorus about the Celts of Gaul: "In Gaul dwell many peoples of varying strength. Among those that are greatest the number is about 200,000, among the smallest, 50,000" (Diodorus Siculus, V, 75). On an average, therefore, 125,000; it can undoubtedly be assumed that, owing to their higher stage of development, the single peoples among the Gauls were rather larger than among the Germans.

[2] According to Bishop Liutprand of Cremona, in the tenth century the chief industry of Verdun -- in the Holy German Empire, observe -- was the manufacture of eunuchs, who were exported at great profit to Spain for the Moorish harems.